It began with tiny espresso cups of warm foie gras soup, ended with big coffee mugs of rum and rye under a nutmeg-sprinkled egg foam masquerading as a harmless after-dinner cappucino, and in between there was a handmade pasta demo, tiny little finger-thick tuille cannoli, a dry gin Vesper with persimmon, roasted squab attended by their own confit legs, tales of saffron smuggling in Abruzze and rabbit agnolotti topped with slips of black truffle that all the cooks (plus me and Art) ended up eating in the basement–gathered around the still-warm pan, stabbing the little ravioli with forks, swearing that we were going to eat just one more, then going back in for another and another and another.
This was last night’s party at Cook–an East Passyunk neighborhood pop-up, inspired by the Philadelphia magazine Neighborhoods issue which is on the stands right now. While we were putting that package together, East Passyunk really came through as one of the stars–a historic, well-known, food-rich and booze-soaked run of blocks long understood as ground-zero for Philly’s cheesesteak face-off, suddenly booming as an honest-to-Jesus Restaurant Row.
So why the sudden boom here? Simple: Money follows money. To smart investors, the blocks surrounding 9th and Passyunk must look like there’s gold lying on the ground. The neighborhood attracts both locals and tourists, and has long since proved itself a winner. Where Le Virtu once turned the city on to the Abruzze region of Italy, and a young team of Lacroix and Le Bec alums created a true destination restaurant with Fond, the bandwagon-jumpers are keeping things hot with new opening after new opening.
That’s what we said in the issue. What we said after the issue was done was that merely calling these neighborhoods out wasn’t enough. What we needed was to celebrate them. To bring together the chefs and the bakers and the drink-slingers, put ’em all in one room, have them cook for their friends and neighbors and biggest fans and see what they came up with.
What they came up with was scallop crudo with fennel two ways and bright squiggles of fluid gel (from George Sabatino of Stateside), those rabbit agnolotti with black truffles (courtesy of Le Virtu’s Joe Cicala, who also apparently makes tiny little rugs out of the fur from the whole rabbits he gets into the restaurant–which is just awesome), whole squab, roasted, deconstructed, sliced, fanned and accented by a single roasted carrot (from Fond’s Lee Styer, who also did those pre-dinner shooters of foie gras, which were amazing) and then chocolate cannoli over bruleed bananas topped with coconut powder from Jesse Prawlucki who once shared a too-small kitchen with Lee at Fond, but now does her own thing in her own space at Belle Cakery. With each course, Jennifer Conley (who commands the bar at Stateside and has a wicked love for the brown liquors) did paired cocktails like the aforementioned Vesper and the also-aforementioned rum-and-rye concoction which, traditionally, is called a Tom & Jerry.
No one left Cook hungry. No one who didn’t want to left sober. And the party ran up to the scheduled end, then well beyond–which is how we knew it was a success.
Or, rather, that was one of the ways we knew it was a success. What actually convinced me was the way that, no matter which of the chefs was taking the stage at a particular moment, all of the others stood waiting in the wings, helping to prep, to plate and to pass. No one had to ask. No one had to call out for a spare set of hands. As a matter of fact, I had Joe Cicala cornered for a bit while Lee Styer was demonstrating how to dismember a squab. We were talking about the history of Abruzze cuisine (a thousand years of purity, in a region never conquered by any other nation), about Adriatic fish and flour-and-water pastas and other things that only food nerds find fascinating. But right in the middle of the conversation–just when he was telling me about the little old woman from whom he scores his Italian saffron–he abruptly turned and left. Mid-sentence. Without looking back.
Over on the prep tables, they were short a hand for laying on the roasted carrots, and Joe understood that helping out a fellow cook was more important than talking to me. That kind of move? It’s one of the reasons why Philly has the kinds of restaurant neighborhoods it does. And it’s one of the reasons why our East Passyunk pop-up was only the first that we’re going to be doing at Cook.
Next month, we have a Fishtown version already on the books–and which sold-out even before we could tell anyone which chefs and which restaurants were going to be represented. But in the coming months, we have several more neighborhood pop-ups being planned (like one having to do with food trucks, and another balancing the books on Fairmount, which suddenly exploded after the Neighborhoods issue had already gone to the printers).
So keep an eye on Cook’s schedule, keep an eye on Foobooz, and when the time comes, be quick with the ticket-ordering, okay? Cook is a small place. These events sell out fast. But we’d love to see you all there.